CT aims to compete in precision medicine. What will it take?

October 16, 2017

Dr. Robert Alpern, left, and Dr. Bruce Liang (Arielle Levin Becker/ctmirror.org)
Dr. Robert Alpern, left, and Dr. Bruce Liang (Arielle Levin Becker/ctmirror.org)

Connecticut has the potential to become a national leader in the growing field of precision medicine, which aims to tailor disease prevention and medical treatment to individuals’ unique genetic code, environment and experiences, scientists and industry officials told a state economic competitiveness panel Friday.

But that potential comes with caveats, several said: Connecticut is far from alone in seeking to be a top player in the field. Other states have put money into supporting the field, and Connecticut must too, some researchers said.

“This opportunity is huge from an economic perspective. I think the question is whether Connecticut wants to play,” Dr. Peter Bowers, chief medical officer at Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield, told members of the Connecticut Commission on Economic Competitiveness and the legislature’s Commerce Committee Friday.

During the meeting at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford, commission members wrestled with issues including Connecticut’s ability to compete and whether there’s a role for people without college degrees in a field based on advanced science and medicine.

The meeting coincided with the release of a report by the Connecticut Health Data Collaborative, which was created by legislation last year to strengthen links between existing institutions in the state. It outlined goals including establishing a Connecticut Center for Genomic Medicine, establishing a more formal way to coordinate efforts and foster public-private partnerships, and identifying and addressing workforce gaps and needs.

“The state has the potential to improve overall population health while investing in the solutions at the same time,” the report said. “Cultivating an economic environment that will attract and retain researchers and entrepreneurs to build on existing innovations will be a key to our success.”

Dr. Robert Alpern, dean of the Yale School of Medicine, said the ability to quickly and inexpensively sequence a person’s genetic code could make it possible to improve medical treatment by identifying which patients will – and won’t – respond to certain medications, or have a predisposition to developing certain conditions.

But while knowledge about specific genes allows some precision medicine approaches today, for most conditions the concept is still a dream, he said. But, he added, getting there won’t take decades.

“This is not a dream for 30 years from now. This is a dream for the next one to three years,” he said.

Among the key ingredients for precision medicine: the technology to sequence DNA, which Yale has invested in; a large base of patients willing to have their DNA sequenced; and high-quality records to match their medical histories with the genetic data.

Alpern said Yale has gone “all in” on the field and has had discussions with UConn and The Jackson Laboratory, which has a genomic medicine institute in Farmington, to work together. Patients receiving care at one of the Yale New Haven Health System hospitals or at UConn’s John Dempsey Hospital would have their tissue harvested so DNA could be isolated. Yale would sequence the DNA, and all three institutions would analyze the information.

“We believe that the three institutions are well-situated to make Connecticut a leader in genomic medicine,” Alpern said.

Joseph McGee, who co-chairs the commission and is vice president for public policy and programs at The Business Council of Fairfield County, pressed Alpern about the state’s ability to become a leader in the field, given competition from others, including Baylor University in Texas and the Broad Institute in Massachusetts.

“I would love to tell you that we will be number one. I probably can’t guarantee that, but we will be among them,” Alpern said.

Will we be in the top five? McGee asked.

Yes, Alpern said.

McGee also asked about the scale of job creation.

“The state’s made commitments to bioscience,” he said. “Help me understand how this private investment grows jobs. What are we looking at five years out? One-hundred jobs? Ten-thousand jobs?”

Investing in a genome center will generate a significant number of jobs, but not on that scale, Alpern said. But, he said, it leverages the ability to attract federal money to the state, including through grants from the National Institutes of Health. That can add more jobs, as will the ability to attract industry and small start-ups.

Others made more specific asks.

Dr. Murat Gunel, a neurosurgeon and executive director of the Yale Center for Genomic Analysis, said matching funds from the state would allow efforts to progress. He noted that Indiana recently invested more than $300 million in research and New York has funded a genome center.

While there is clear economic value to precision medicine, how to best use it to foster economic development remains unclear, said Dr. Edison Liu, president and CEO of The Jackson Laboratory, which built its Farmington institute with $291 million in state funding.

That uncertainty, he said, “presents a real opportunity for new players, like Connecticut, to compete against the Bostons and Silicon Valleys of the world.”

Nevada has been drawing tech businesses from California because of its proximity, lower taxes and lower start-up costs, Liu said, adding that Connecticut could potentially use a similar approach to appeal to companies in New York and Massachusetts.

Todd E. Arnold spoke about working for a New York-based organization that built a facility in Branford. He’s managing director of the Mount Sinai Genetic Testing Laboratory – Connecticut, which is part of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Why did they pick Branford? Arnold cited several reasons: It’s near universities, in an area with a history of biotechnology development; the employee pool is very well-educated for a state of Connecticut’s size; and Branford is a reasonable commute from Manhattan.

Both state and local economic development officials made it easy to establish a site there, he added. At first, Mount Sinai looked to locate its lab in New Haven, but found there wasn’t space there. They might have just given up and found a place in New York, Arnold said, but economic development officials from New Haven suggested they look in Branford.

“There’s a good quality of life here, and I think we need to leverage that,” he said.

Some members of the panel asked about the types of jobs the field would create, particularly for those without college degrees.

Dr. Bruce Liang, dean of the UConn School of Medicine, said there will be a growing need for genetic counselors to talk to patients about the information genomic testing uncovers. And Liu noted that Jackson employs hundreds of people – in Connecticut and Maine, where its headquarters is located – who have just a high school degree. (Jackson recently raised its minimum wage to $15 an hour.)

Rodney Williams, a commission member from New Haven, raised concerns about whether the jobs precision medicine could create would be accessible to local residents, and said Yale should do more to help ensure students develop the skills that will be needed. While data will have to come from state residents, he said, jobs should go to them too.

And Lori Pelletier, a member of the panel and leader of the Connecticut AFL-CIO, raised a similar concern. “We have to worry about folks that earn a living with their hands,” she said.

But Rep. Dave Yaccarino, R-North Haven, pushed back, saying it’s important that those concerns don’t stop progress in a field he believes Connecticut can lead.

“When we build these facilities, you have to have construction, you have to have site work, you have to have everything. It helps every other business,” he said. “I understand what you’re saying…You have to start somewhere.”

This story was updated to correct the amount of state funding The Jackson Laboratory received for its Connecticut institute.


By Arielle Levin Becker | Story courtesy of CT Mirror

Awards advance Academic Plan

Academic Plan Award projects meet at least one of five key UConn goals. Peter Morenus/UConn photo
Academic Plan Award projects meet at least one of five key UConn goals. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

Professors often collaborate on projects with others close to home or around the world. A recent announcement of the 2017 Academic Plan Proposal Awards highlights how several CAHNR faculty members successfully work together with colleagues right here at UConn.

Seven people from the College, with various job titles, are included in three projects that aim to advance at least one of the five key goals of UConn’s academic plan.

“Collaborating is an increasingly important part of science because no one can be expected to know everything about the cutting-edge research, testing or treatments,” said Department of Allied Health Sciences Associate Professor in Residence Judy Brown.  She has first-hand experience working with others in the genetics and genomics field and, with two colleagues from UConn Health, received a Level 1 Academic Plan Proposal Award for work in the area of teaching and engagement. 

The three scientists will initiate an interdisciplinary and accredited professional science master’s degree program in genetics, genomics and counseling.  This program will be the first at a New England public institution and the first in Connecticut, according to UConn Today. “Bringing together expert faculty from other departments and from the multiple disciplines of genetics and genomics is a mutual gain,” Brown said.

Another Level 1 award goes to Plant Science and Landscape Architecture Professor Emerita Carol Auer and four collaborators from ecology and evolutionary biology. Their proposal, Biological Risk and Big Data: Sustainability and Resilience in the Era of Global Change,” aims to support the research and scholarship key goal of the academic plan. According to UConn Today, the project will seek to “understand and mitigate emerging threats to agriculture, natural resources, human health, and the economy.”

The award, which fits in the strategic area of Sustainability & Resilience: Environment & Energy, will help UConn establish an Institute of Biological Risk. The Institute has already attracted media attention, including that of the Associated Press.

A proposed climate change project, “The UConn Climate Corps: Serving Connecticut’s Communities while Providing a Unique Undergraduate Learning Experience,” addresses two of the key goals, undergraduate education and public engagement. The proposal will receive a Level 2 award to create the UConn Climate Corps.

Participating with geography and civil and environmental engineering faculty members are Extension Educator Chester Arnold, Associate Extension Educator Juliana Barrett, Professor and Director of the Sea Grant College Program Sylvain De Guise, Assistant Extension Educator Bruce Hyde and Professor John Volin from the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment.

For the projects, Level 1 awards give funding amounts between $200,000 and $300,000 and Level 2 awards are between $125,000 and $150,000. Both levels have multi-year terms. The five key goals of UConn’s Academic Plan are research and scholarship, undergraduate education, graduate education, teaching effectiveness and public engagement. More about UConn’s Academic Plan is on the Academic Vision pages of the Provost’s website.

By Patsy Evans | Story courtesy of Naturally@UConn

UConn To Launch Masters Program In Genetic Counseling

MyGene Genetic Testing Kit including 2 swabs for collecting buccal samples and ID card for customer. (Photo Credit: Prometheus1~enwiki via Wikimedia Commons)
MyGene Genetic Testing Kit including 2 swabs for collecting buccal samples and ID card for customer.
(Wikimedia Commons)

The University of Connecticut is planning a new graduate program designed to prepare students to become genetic counselors, a relatively small but growing field of study.

There are only about 4,000 certified genetic counselors in the U.S. and Canada, according to Sheila O’Neal of the Accreditation Council for Genetic Counseling. As more people take genetic tests to determine whether they have a gene that will lead to disease or cause death, O’Neal said the need will increase for trained health professionals to help interpret complex results.

“You can imagine that in instances where the patient might hear information that is distressful to them, the genetic counselor has those counseling skills to help the individual cope,” said O’Neal.

Only two schools in New England — Brandeis and Boston University — currently offer accredited masters programs in genetic counseling. UConn plans its first class to begin in the fall of 2018.

By 

UConn to Launch State’s First Genetic Counseling Program

As demand grows for such counseling, there's an urgent need for training in how to interpret the results of genetic tests. (Shutterstock Photo)
As demand grows for such counseling, there’s an urgent need for training in how to interpret the results of genetic tests. (Shutterstock Photo)

UConn is establishing the state’s first program to educate students on how to interpret the results of genetic testing, a rapidly growing area in health care that urgently needs more trained personnel.

New genetics research and techniques have made it easy for the average person to get a read on their genome, or whole genetic code. In recent years, attention from celebrities like Angelina Jolie, who openly discussed her genetic risk factors for cancer, has increased demand enormously.

Just because a person carries a potentially problematic gene doesn’t mean they’re destined to die of the disease. Yet doctors don’t usually have much background in genetics, and rarely have enough time to keep up with the latest genetic research.

Ideally, a doctor who identifies “red flags” within a patient’s family history that indicate increased genetic risk for disease will call in a genetic counselor. The counselor can take a detailed family history, determine the appropriateness of genetic testing, discuss benefits and limitations of the testing, and advise the patient on who else in their family might be at risk. If testing occurs and results indicate high genetic risk, counselors can help discuss the options to mitigate that risk. These actions could be as mild as lifestyle changes, or as extreme as surgery to remove organs before they become cancerous.

In Connecticut, genetic counseling is the fourth fastest growing occupation, but with a small pool of programs throughout the nation, the acceptance rate for those programs is below 8 percent.

“Our students are anxious. They want to do this!” says Judy Brown, program director of diagnostic genetic sciences in UConn’s Department of Allied Health Sciences.

Brown, along with Institute for Systems Genomics director Marc Lalande and UConn Health genetics counselor Ginger Nichols, is spearheading the new Professional Science Master’s (PSM) in Genetics, Genomics, and Counseling with a more than $300,000 grant from the University.

The first class is expected to enter in the fall of 2018. Anyone with a bachelor’s degree who has met the admission requirements will be able to apply. More information on educational requirements for Genetic Counseling Programs, in general, can be found online.

Institutions outside of UConn have also expressed support for the new PSM, including Connecticut Children’s Hospital and The Jackson Laboratory (JAX) for Genomic Medicine.

“When genetic research is ready for prime time, you need clinicians who can understand and apply it,” says Kate Reed, director of the Clinical and Continuing Education Program at JAX Genomic Medicine. “Right now, many clinicians don’t have the training to do that.”

The exact role of JAX Genomic Medicine, Connecticut Children’s Hospital, and the other institutions who support the new PSM has not yet been defined. The program’s curriculum first needs to be approved and accredited.

For updates on the program go to UConn’s Department of Allied Health Sciences website.

By Kim Krieger | Story courtesy of UConn Today

UCONN hires director for State’s First Genetic Counseling Program

October 7, 2017

Maria Gyure (Jean-Philippe Cyprès/UVA Photo)
Maria Gyure (Jean-Philippe Cyprès/UVA Photo)

The Department of Allied Health Sciences in the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources and the Institute for Systems Genomics at the University of Connecticut together are pleased to welcome Maria Gyure, MS, CGC, to our faculty as a lecturer and the Director of the Genetic and Genomic Counseling Master’s Degree Program.
Maria Gyure (née Mangual) attended UConn on a 4-year Academic Leadership Scholarship where she went on to earn a Bachelor of Science degree in Diagnostic Genetic Sciences and a minor in Molecular and Cell Biology in 2001. Maria completed her internship in the cytogenetics laboratory at UMass Memorial Medical Center and then went on to work in both cytogenetics and molecular genetics at Dianon Systems in Shelton, CT for two years. Upon relocating to Virginia, she served as a scientist for the VA state newborn screening laboratory for more than two years.

Maria subsequently matriculated into the Genetic Counseling Program at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, VA, where she earned a Master’s of Science in Genetic Counseling and completed the VA Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental Disabilities (Va-LEND) program in 2007.

Maria was a practicing genetic counselor at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, MA, before returning to VCU where she has since excelled in many roles. Maria has worked as a practicing genetic counselor in the Department of Human and Molecular Genetics, as an instructor of the Practice of Genetic Counseling 1 and 2 course at VCU, and as a clinical student supervisor. Within the department, Maria combined genetic counseling with research and served as the research coordinator for an NIH-funded study to test an intervention aimed at increasing family communication about cancer.  Maria’s current role is within the School of Education’s Department of Counseling & Special Education as research faculty and research coordinator for BEST in CLASS where she manages multiple federally funded research grants on interventions for young children at risk for emotional and behavioral disorders.

Maria has several publications in her specialty in addition to invited presentations and service on graduate advisory committees. She is a true voice for underserved populations. She will be joining co-Director Dr. Judy Brown in August 2017 to complete the documentation and compile the application materials to seek accreditation for the Genetic and Genomic Counseling program from the Accreditation Council for Genetic Counseling and for affiliation with the Professional Science Master’s Association. We welcome Maria and look forward to having her back at UConn to share her experiences and knowledge with all our genetics students. The anticipated start date for the genetic and genomic counseling program is fall 2019. Stay tuned to our Genetic Counseling website for additional program information.